Charles Curtis in Residence

At Christ Church Spitalfields in 2011 I witnessed one of the most astounding performances in my life when Charles Curtis played Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak with uncanny flawlessness. So glad I got to hear his cello playing again at Cafe Oto last week, as part of his residency for four nights. There wasn’t the shock of that first time for me, but the marvel of the rarefied music he brings to us remains. For the first gig he played two pieces, Alvin Lucier’s Slices and Tashi Wada’s Landslide – all the pieces I heard were for solo cello with fixed media playback. (Sadly I missed the two middle concerts due to stupid shit). In Slices, the backing is a recording of what sounded like a mix of sampled and synthesised orchestra. It’s a relatively dense and elaborate piece by Lucier’s standards, with cello playing against or responded to by single instruments on the same pitch, accumulating into chords for which the cello then acts like a filter or interference pattern, in the manner which sine tones are used in many of his other pieces. Overtones and ephemeral complex phenomena come and go, but I’ve always liked this piece a little less for its lack of clarity even as it seems to imply a more perceptible premise. There was a shorter version for cello with live orchestra at Tectonics in Glasgow about ten years back where the acoustic intricacies worked more effectively. Landslide uses field recording in duet with cello, sounding like parkland with distant city, a kind of urban bucolic. It seemed familiar because there is, through demographic necessity, a small musical sub-genre of pieces which make use of this soundscape, exploring the idea of public solitude in a populated place. Wada’s depiction of space is blurred and streaked by overtones instigated by Curtis’ light cello drones on a single pitch that steadily rises, creating reverberations as it crosses particular frequencies in the grey noise background. Why does the pitch rise? Because it needs to cover the full range between high and low but doesn’t need to go anywhere in particular.

The final night was taken up by one long work, Terry Jennings’ 1960 composition Piece for Cello and Saxophone. Composed for Jennings to perform with drones played by a cellist (or bassist) for a concert in Yoko Ono’s loft that didn’t eventuate, the piece persisted as a faint, shadowy presence, one of many works that haunted the turning-points of the American avant-garde, lost along with the short, tumultuous lives of their creators. It has since manifested itself as a version for cello with pre-recorded cellos, arranged by La Monte Young and superbly realised by Curtis. As Young was involved, there was a handout for us to read at the gig which shed additional light on the piece’s conception, context and history. Stretching out for nearly ninety minutes, the piece is built out of improvised solos over chord changes, using “raga-like” modes to move from one harmonic region to another. Sustained tones dominate, and Young has rewritten the piece to specify just intonation for all pitches. The work’s origins can be traced to a shared interest in blues and Indian music, although any imitative resemblance is limited to the use of pitch bends reminiscent of sarangi playing. As the live presence, Curtis alternates between melody and drone in a series of exchanges from him to the tape and back again, causing an elaborate interplay between figure and ground, both endless melody and endless chorale. The music was alive throughout, at once in motion and at rest, moving sublimely from one mood to another with calm, self-contained power. A promotional blurb for the gig described the piece as “visionary”, which seems extravagant but also fair: even as almost every aspect of the piece had been transformed between its composition and its performance, the integrity of Jennings’ singular musical thinking still speaks to us today.